11 July 2006
USTR To Press Congress On Oman, Peru, Vietnam Trade Deals
By Elizabeth Price, Dow Jones Newswires
WASHINGTON — (Dow Jones) — U.S. trade officials will concentrate on getting Congress to approve trade agreements with Oman, Peru and Vietnam in the run-up to mid-term elections this autumn, a U.S. trade official said Tuesday.
Though U.S. and Colombian trade negotiators are just days away from wrapping up a free trade agreement, time is running short to get that deal ratified this year, the official told reporters on condition he not be named.
"We are going to get as much as we can done in July," the official said, adding that both the Peru and the Vietnam agreements could clear committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate this month.
The Senate approved the free-trade agreement with Oman before the July 4 recess with a wider margin than some of the other recent trade votes, like the one with Central America. The U.S. trade official said the House would likely vote to approve the agreement as early as next week.
Oman’s labor law reform over the weekend - via royal decree - to bolster union protections and hike penalties on forced labor, should help smooth Democratic concerns over labor standards in the Gulf country, the official said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is talking with Democrats on House intelligence and foreign policy committees, urging them to support the Oman agreement because the government there has been a military ally, the official said.
"At the end of the day, the substance both on the labor side of the trade agreement itself and the geopolitical case for the agreement will win out," the official said.
Last month, the Peruvian Congress ratified the free trade agreement with the U.S., which the Bush administration signed with former President Alejandro Toledo last year. The legislation was passed with a comfortable margin; 79 votes in favor, 14 against, with 7 Congressmen not voting. It received full support from legislators from President-elect Alan Garcia’s Aprista party bloc.
The Bush administration argues Peru, like Oman, should be rewarded for seeking closer ties with the U.S. at a time when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is seeking to expand his influence. Nonetheless, the Peru agreement is expected to encounter more problems than the deal with tiny Oman, with opponents citing concerns over Peru’s labor laws.
The administration is hoping to get Congress to grant Vietnam permanent normal trade status, so it can join the World Trade Organization. That agreement has broad bipartisan support, but is stuck in line behind Oman and Peru.
The official said the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement is going through the final checks before negotiations come to a close. Under the rules of President George W. Bush’s trade promotion authority, the administration must notify Congress 90 days before signing an agreement. This puts signing the deal off until October at the earliest, only a couple of weeks before the November elections, the official noted. The agreement could be considered in a lame-duck session following the election, he added.